Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Vietnam has ignored repeated calls to repatriate hundreds of its citizens stranded in Indonesia after they were detained for illegal fishing, officials and fishermen told BenarNews and sister entity Radio Free Asia.
The pandemic may be a reason for why Vietnam has not taken back the fishermen because in normal times Hanoi repatriated them within a couple of months of their detention, said Ahmad Nursaleh, spokesman for Indonesia’s Directorate General of Immigration.
“Efforts have been made to return them. The Director General of Immigration has communicated with the Vietnamese side every time there are additional Vietnamese detained, we communicated this to them immediately,” Ahmad told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“Their number keeps increasing and there is no clarity about their return, while from our side there is no obstacle to repatriating them. … We can only encourage Vietnam to repatriate its citizens immediately.”
Vietnam, the flag country of the seized boats, is responsible for repatriation, he said.
“We also can’t enforce their country’s policies. The important thing is that we make an effort to coordinate with all related parties,” Ahmad said.
When asked if President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh had discussed the fishermen during their meeting last month at the Bogor Presidential Palace in West Java, Indonesian officials said they did not know.
Ahmed said that Indonesia would prefer if the Vietnamese fishermen went back.
“Basically, we want them to return home immediately, but the current situation, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, does not allow them to return to Vietnam because Vietnam itself is still on lockdown. There haven’t been any flights there yet,” Ahmad said.
“We can’t get angry because it’s about procedures. We have made every effort, because this is our job, too. However, this is a pandemic time, everyone is having a difficult time,” he said.
While all crew members on seized fishing boats are detained, only the captains and other leaders have been charged, according to Indonesian officials.
In mid-December 2020, Indonesian authorities said 225 fishermen had been detained that year – but 199 of them were cleared to return to Vietnam at any time.
Because of the number of fishermen being held and no flights between the countries, Indonesian officials expected their Vietnamese counterparts to send a ship to retrieve them, authorities said.
Indonesia does not want to find fault with anyone, according to Ahmad.
“This is not what Indonesia wants – we cannot blame the sailors or their country either. Okay, they broke the law, but when justice has been done, they just need to be sent home,” he said.
It is usually crew members who are allowed to go back to their home countries, Abdi Suhufan, of the non-profit environmental group Destructive Fishing Watch Indonesia, told BenarNews.
“Those who are detained are usually the skippers, while crew members are sent home, but maybe the Vietnamese government isn't prepared to repatriate them. Indonesia also has limited funds, shelters and interpreters,” Abdi said.
The Vietnamese Embassy in Jakarta did not respond to at least three BenarNews requests for comment.
Meanwhile, some of the fishermen said that, because they have been housed in detention centers in Indonesia, they have not been able to support their families back home in Vietnam.
One Vietnamese fisherman who has been held at Tanjung Pinang detention center in the capital of Indonesia’s Riau Islands province since March 2020 told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that he had not been able to provide for his young children and his parents who are in their 70s.
His parents continue to work so they can send him about U.S. $45 a month so he can buy food, he said.
“All of us at the detention center are having a hard life. Many are often hungry as we are provided with only a half bowl of rice each meal. We all want to return to Vietnam to live and earn money to support our families. It’s miserable here,” said the fisherman who asked that his name not be used because of security concerns.
An Indonesian Fisheries and Marine Resources Ministry official said the fishermen had enough to eat.
“We feed them and there are quite a lot of them. Nobody is hungry, they can eat between three and four times a day,” fleet monitoring and operations director Pung Nugroho Saksono told BenarNews.
“So far the number has reached more than 500 people, because it has been almost a year since they have been sent home,” he said.
In Vietnam, a woman who asked to be identified as Ms. Vy and whose younger brother has been detained in Tanjung Pinang, said that her family had contacted her local Department of Foreign Affairs office many times.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs here [in Vietnam] said that they had sent all [the related documents] to the embassy [in Jakarta],” Ms. Vy told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“When I contacted the embassy, they said that we should wait. We’ve been waiting for over a year but haven’t heard back from them.”
She said many families have reached out to an unscrupulous broker to assist in efforts to free their kin.
“I heard that around 100 families of the detainees had to borrow money, some even had borrowed money from evil gangs or banks to pay the broker,” she said.
“Many are now worried that the broker has been cheating them.”
In December 2020, detainees at Tanjung Pinang sent videos of themselves to RFA to highlight their poor living conditions.
An inmate who asked to be identified as Mr. Bien said the Vietnamese officials had visited the detention center before the lunar New Year in early February 2021, to collect information after the videos had been published.
“Before Tet, the Vietnamese Embassy’s staff came to interview us in person. I did ask them to help all of us to return and reunite with our families soon,” he told RFA.
“The Embassy staff said they would try their best to facilitate it at the earliest possible, but so far, we haven’t seen any progress.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. The Vietnamese Service of Radio Free Asia contributed to this report.